Thursday 30 June 2011

Emma at the LGC

A4e's Emma Harrison has been one of the plenary speakers at the Local Government Conference in Birmingham. (She's billed as Dr. Emma Harrison - not sure when she got her PhD.) Two tweets about it: "Great presentation by Emma Harrison urging UK to assist 'negative millionaires' in to work" and "Packed hall for this morning's plenary on boosting private sector growth. Dr Emma Harrison of A4E speaking". I wonder what a "negative millionaire" is. No, don't tell me. There's a report of the speech on which highlights Harrison's apparent expertise in the area of Local Enterprise Partnerships. She told delegates that if the government turned down a region's application for a LEP, the authorities and local business should go ahead and form one anyway. "The call for direct action by councils and businesses met with a great deal of approval within the audience." The article ends: "Ms Harrison – who is advising the prime minister on back-to-work programmes for the long-term unemployed - urged authorities to support as far as possible low-cost regimes designed to help the unemployed sustain work for charities and small businesses in order to make them ‘work ready’." Now, read that sentence again, slowly. It means that local councils should put money into charities and small businesses so that they can give work placements (not jobs) to the unemployed. Hmm. But this sort of event is all about networking and consolidating Harrison's image as the government's guru.

Mark Lovell has been to meetings in the Cabinet Office and has been invited to a Buckingham Palace garden party. Roy Newey, meanwhile, has been meeting the Chinese premier before setting off for India. It's all go!

Tuesday 28 June 2011


It's not always obvious that you're dealing with A4e.

Take Middlesborough Enterprise Gateway, marketed with the slogans "a fresh start" and "be your own boss". Nowhere on its website will you find A4e mentioned, but that's who is delivering this project. It's been running for over a year.

Then there's a video on the Flixel site, an interview with Dame Kelly Holmes. It's tagged as A4e and education. It's standard motivational stuff, follow your dreams etc. I admit I have a bit of a problem with it. The tiny minority of highly successful people tell us that we can achieve similar success, when the majority, however dedicated, won't.

It's the last Fairy Jobmother programme tonight, thank goodness. Not having watched this series, I don't know how deceptive it is. But we do know that interviews were arranged by Ms Taylor / the producers (see the Builders' Merchants Journal site), and that gives the impression that interviews and jobs are there for the taking. In fact, anyone with a long spell of unemployment on their CV is unlikely to clear even the first hurdle of an interview. Is that made clear?

Remember "Working Families Everywhere"? Only three local authorities signed up for it. Hull is employing 6 of the "family champions", but it seems likely that they are not new appointments but redeployed existing council staff. If this is the case, (and if it's true in Westminster as well) it rather takes the project out of Emma Harrison's hands. The "champions" are accountable to the councils, which can design the jobs.

Thursday 23 June 2011

Among the Best Companies

There's a curious website called the Best Companies Guide which purports to analyse various factors which make A4e a good place to work (although it seems to come out at only 623 in the Best Companies Index). Nowhere on the site can I find just how many of the 3,388 staff were polled on this, but there's some interesting stuff here. "A4e Superstars [which] is an internal recognition programme", for instance. It's an incentive scheme which enables employees to rack up points which they can use to buy things from "a bespoke A4e rewards catalogue". It's an oddly old-fashioned attitude to management which treats employees in this way. The stuff under "My Team" and "Personal Growth" is equally interesting. One would have no clue from it that people are made redundant every time the contracts change.

There's a new contract in Northern Ireland. "A4e (Action for Employment) has been appointed in the Antrim contract area for the Department’s main adult return to work programme, which aims to assist unemployed and economically inactive people into sustained employment." It's not clear whether the Work Programme extends to Northern Ireland.

The Socialist magazine has a piece about A4e's "partnership with Finsbury Park Business Forum to provide wardens for the local tube and overground train and bus stations. These wardens are supplied by A4e from jobseekers who work in exchange for their benefits. They are doing work that had previously been done by Transport for London (TfL) staff." The writer, Neil Cafferky, says that 800 underground staff have been sacked and the unions are very unhappy about the unemployed being used to replace these jobs.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Engaging with employers - and housing

An interesting piece in the People Management magazine, which is for HR professionals. CIPD chief executive Jackie Orme wants firms to think about how they can engage with the Work Programme, and she says that "there are solid business reasons to give opportunities to people who have previously been excluded by the labour market." This comes before a "round table" event involving Orme along with Chris Grayling, A4e's Andrew Dutton and a number of large employers. The piece doesn't say who convened this meeting or why, of the providers, only A4e is represented.
If it's such a good thing to employ people who have previously been excluded, one wonders why employers haven't thought of it before. Still, it's got to be a good thing if it results in people getting jobs. But one note of caution; does this mean that providers, in competition with each other, are signing up companies to offer preferential interviews to their clients? If so, how transparent will that be? There are some interesting implications here.

A4e's Jonty Olliff-Cooper has been at another round table, this time with Moat, a "social housing" provider. Now, I'll resist the temptation to rant about the pernicious concept of "social housing"; but the fact remains that around 60% (it may be more by now) of tenants in council or housing association properties are dependent on benefits. Olliff-Cooper says: “At A4e, every customer journey from welfare into work starts with a discussion about the breadth of problems they may face, not simply the status of their employment. We know, from the work we do every day, that housing is a concern for a significant number of people out of a job; given the changes in the sector for provisions in both employment and housing, it’s our responsibility to help make both of these things as accessible – and stable – as possible. Discussions with our partners and colleagues, like today’s roundtable, are an invaluable step towards achieving this, and helping improve people’s lives.” Is this, perhaps, the start of contracts between A4e and housing associations?

Monday 13 June 2011


In all the publicity about the Work Programme it's been assumed that the inclusion of lots of voluntary sector organisations as sub-contractors is a good thing. Indeed, the government was adamant that they had to be part of it, and the people who've made a living out of running the sector have been desparate to be involved. But looking at the list of these organisations, I'm not so sure. Many of them are not the usual "third sector" big players which depend entirely on contracts from local or national government for their income. Some are small community projects. Others are respected organisations which people turn to for independent help and advice. The involvement of these organisations with the WP carries dangers for them. For one thing, they could find themselves under immense pressure. The primes are focussed squarely on the money, and if these groups do not contribute as much to the bottom line as expected they could be ditched. And they also run the risk of being seen as agents of private companies like Ingeus and A4e, and this could affect their image. I think we'll see more than a few of these organisations falling out of the WP in the next couple of years.
There are other concerns. The plan is that primes will genuinely compete with each other; if they fall below target they will lose share of the clientele to their rivals. But no one has said what will happen if they are all falling below target to the same degree, which is very likely. Remember also that these are 7-year contracts. If the government which succeeds this one wants to change them or abandon them they won't be able to without paying out a great deal of money.
We're used to A4e finding new and dafter ways of describing itself; but one which popped up this week is the most absurd yet. "A4e is a social purpose company with the sole aim to improve people's lives around the world. We do this by helping them to find work, skills, direction – or whatever it is they need." Roy Newey, having moved on from Saudi Arabia, is currently looking for business in Latvia.
All the coverage in the last few days has shown how little the media understand, or care, about the history of welfare-to-work. And that's also evident in a review of next week's Fairy Jobmother programme in the Hartlepool Mail. After calling the show "popular" and "innovative", the piece tells us that, "Hayley worked with the candidates featured in the show for two weeks and tried to instill the skills and motivation required to get back into work. As part of the show, she helps them with basic CV writing and job hunting skills before lining them up with interviews." So none of them, we must assume, had been on a New Deal or FND course, where private companies were paid to do this, and apparently failed. I bet we won't be told. And how does "lining them up with interviews", which they almost certainly wouldn't have got without the cameras, affect people's perceptions of the world of the unemployed?

Friday 10 June 2011

Work Programme starts

Loads of publicity today for the start of the Work Programme, most of it ill-informed. The BBC's Today programme on Radio 4 made a complete mess of it, with a dreadful interview of Chris Grayling by John Humphrys and then a brief discussion between a chap from the Work Foundation and one from CDG.
The print media are scarcely any better. As you'd expect, the Express leads with "A crackdown on benefits scroungers will be launched by ministers today" and continues in the same ignorant, not to say demented, vein. The Mail is actually rather better, but it loves the idea of "recruiting former Army officers to help instill discipline into young jobseekers".
The Telegraph takes a different line. Its writer, Louisa Peacock, asks how the scheme can succeed when it "is being delivered by the same old providers". She points out that PriceWaterhouseCoopers pulled out because it didn't think the scheme was financially viable. "If the same old providers haven't found a solution to this by now, what on earth can be different in this 'step change' of delivery?"
The BBC news website quotes A4e's Andrew Dutton, who "said it would look at removing the barriers that had been keeping people out of work. 'They [sic] may be debt issues or housing issues or problems within the family, legal issues around housing, but often very much around supporting them to really gain confidence,' he told the BBC."
The Guardian is thorough and balanced. Its writer, Patrick Wintour, cites the concerns of the Work Foundation "that in areas of Britain with the highest unemployment and fewest job vacancies, contractors will struggle".
Chris Grayling had an easy time on The Daily Politics. But when asked about the concerns that providers would focus their efforts on those areas of the country with the best job prospects, he said that there had been intense bidding and competition for all areas from the providers, so he was confident that wouldn't happen. The interview ended with a question about why the private sector was going to be better at this than the public sector. The answer was purely ideological.

Thursday 9 June 2011

Saudi Arabia and here

I don't know why I was initially surprised to read that A4e is seeking business in Saudi Arabia. Roy Newey arrived there on 4 June and tweeted that he was " looking forward to meetings with government to support skills and employment programmes." Why should I think that this is a step too far? After all, it's just business, as it is for many other companies and governments who regard the nature of the Saudi regime as irrelevant to trade and profit.

There has been only one more review (that I've seen, anyway) of The Fairy Jobmother, and that's in the Independent. The writer, Laurie Penny, calls it "possibly the ghastliest piece of poverty porn ever made" and she doesn't get any more complimentary as the piece goes on! One could almost feel sorry for Hayley Taylor. If she had stopped after the US series she would have retained some dignity. This new series was obsolete before it began. There has been no reaction from those papers (the Mail and the Express, for instance) which have demonised the unemployed; perhaps it embarrasses even them. Most of the media have become bored with the concept and are turning to more intelligent examinations of the problems of poverty and unemployment.

There has just been another reminder of how history gets rewritten. Iain Duncan Smith has been on the radio defending his government against the criticisms of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He described the Work Programme as if it's a wholly new idea to involve the private and voluntary sectors in getting people back to work. Don't ever ask how well, or badly, the private sector has performed; just forget the last contract and give them the next one.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Reviews of The Fairy Jobmother - or lack of them

I was steeling myself this morning to read reviews of that programme. But I can only find two.

There's a brief one in Metro. It talks about the "admirable empathy" of this "no-nonsense employment guru" and says that, "The combination of her pep talks and setting up interviews turned the future around for three of her volunteers. Even hopeless case Dave got a job in the end, but off his own bat. If Taylor could be rolled out across the nation’s Jobcentres, the benefits budget would be squashed in an instant."

The Guardian is dismissive. It's a tired formula, and the writer has fun with suggestions for more similar shows. The comments, however, are much more interesting. I particularly like one from someone called wishface.

It seems that this series is now old hat. Good.

Tuesday 7 June 2011

That Panorama Programme

Last night's Panorama programme about unemployment was, on the whole, fair. But there was one glaring omission.

First, we were told that a "revolution" is coming in getting people back to work, and the vox pops showed the prevailing attitudes. But then we were introduced to real people who actually did want to work. And we were shown a number of different schemes to train people for jobs, all of them locally run and funded. What about New Deal and Flexible New Deal, I wondered. FND has been run in North Wales by Serco and BCTV, so where were they? One young man, Adam, had been on something only identified as a "course". Was this FND? He had secured a work placement for himself, at Morrison's. He came away from that without a job, but was later offered 18 hours a week with the retailer. He took it. Another lad, Chris, had been sanctioned for refusing to apply for a particular job and was without his benefits for 6 months. His attitude is not that uncommon. While Chris Grayling, along with most people, believe that the unemployed have no right to be choosy, it's usually about maintaining some sort of control over your life.

The local MP, Chris Ruane, talked about the dangers of stigmatising the unemployed. He pointed out that 50% of the jobs in his constituency are in the public sector, and many of those jobs are going. The boss of Rehab, one of the new Work Programme contractors in the area, was cautious about the prospects of getting the long-term jobless back into work.

Why do these programmes shy away from naming the private contractors these days? Grayling is confident that the WP will succeed because it only pays out for sustainable jobs. (That wouldn't include Adam and his 18 hours a week.) It's as if the terrible record of the last 5 years is to be forgotten; the "revolution" will be successful.

Sunday 5 June 2011

Watch it if you must

A new series of The Fairy Jobmother begins on Channel 4 on Tuesday 7 June. I won't be watching. I wouldn't waste a minute of my life on it. If you do, dear reader, do post your thoughts.
It's worth remembering how this particular piece of what's been termed "poverty porn" came about. Channel 4 screened Benefit Busters, three programmes which took a serious look at the issues surrounding the welfare-to-work industry. The first two were filmed in A4e offices. Who now remembers the scenes in Hull, of clients being insulted and given nothing useful to do, of the man who got a job only to have it come to an end after a week? No, it was the first programme, which saw Hayley Taylor haranguing single mothers in Doncaster, which impressed producers. Ms Taylor was a character. And so she became a star, leaving A4e for a whole new career, here and in the US.
So will she fix up more hopeless cases with jobs which they certainly wouldn't have got if the cameras weren't there? Will you be shown idle, feckless people as if they were typical of the unemployed? Probably.

The BBC Panorama programme tonight (Monday 6 June) ought to be more informative: "With the government promising a welfare revolution, getting people off benefits and into work, Panorama visits the seaside resort of Rhyl in North Wales. In some parts of the town, nearly half of the adult population are on benefits. The programme follows the real life stories of some of the unemployed there, and asks the government whether this battle can really be won." But will there be any mention of the New Deal and FND providers who have dealt with these people in the past? Probably not.

Saturday 4 June 2011

That A4e bank

As Mark Lovell pushes for a financial and banking role for A4e, we should remember that their plans for a bank have a long history. I've described before how the plans came to nothing, but I've only just come across this lengthy piece in the Telegraph from September 2006. It describes, entirely uncritically, how A4e was "in talks with a major South African banking provider for the new service, which should have as many as 150 branches. Plans were submitted to the Financial Services Authority in London some months ago." (We know that this South African bank was Capitec, and that A4e actually set up Capitec UK.) "A4e said the venture was likely to cost between £50m and £100m in the first instance." £1m of public money was subsequently allocated for this venture by a section of the North West Regional Development Agency.
The writer of this piece, Christopher Hope, raises no doubts. He doesn't ask whether it's appropriate for this company to enter retail banking, targeting the very people it gets money from the government to help. But 2006 was the point at which insanity in the banking system was poised to crash and ruin us all. It doesn't seem very likely now that we'll see A4e Bank (or Capitec UK) branches on the High Street. But the ambition hasn't gone away. And when Lovell's latest thoughts on the subject are published in the Telegraph, will anyone go back 5 years and look at the history? I doubt it.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Andrew Dutton and income

We're used to A4e sprinkling PR stuff all over the internet, but this piece is unusual in that it names Andrew Dutton as the "mastermind" behind A4e's growth to "an international, £250m-turnover powerhouse". The piece is in question-and-answer form, and Dutton has all the right phrases (like "social purpose company"), but there are some interesting figures. He says that welfare-to-work contributes 60% of their global revenue, but they have diversified into various other areas. He'll get some applause for saying, "Over 90 % of the people we come across want to work and have a job. They see it as part of what gives them identity. There is a tiny minority of people that sees being on benefits as a lifestyle. They are few and far between. But it's also part of our job to persuade those people that working has more benefits to staying at home. I do not subscribe to the view that a large proportion of our society is happy to sit on benefits." And in talking about competitive tendering he says that "the contracts currently under tender are worth £3-4bn collectively. Two years ago, competition was stiff but there was a multitude of relatively small players. We now turn over a quarter of billion pounds a year." He cites India as the biggest growth market for A4e, and is interesting on the subject of bringing in outside investment and the possibility of floating the company on the stock market. "The ultimate plan is to be a half-a-billion-turnover business by 2014, and generate revenues of £1bn by 2020. Being privately owned, we can take a long-term view. How we do that in terms of equity structure is still up for debate. I do know we'll have to open up the company to enable that level of growth, so we'll never rule out the option for an IPO."

So all this competitive tendering has, in reality, driven out the competition.

Now that the government is publishing a complete breakdown of its monthly spending we can see just how much A4e is getting at this site. I started to tally up how much they'd been paid already this year, but decided that life was too short. Suffice it to say that it's a lot!